Perfect Picture Book Friday Special! – Starry Forest Books – A Perfect Picture Book Publisher PLUS A Fantastic Opportunity Giveaway!!!

Break out the fancy coffee mugs and some celebratory chocolate cake for breakfast, my friends! We have a very special edition of Perfect Picture Books today!

In lieu of a book, I have an interview with a publisher who is actively looking to acquire picture books. This is a unique opportunity to get an inside look at a publisher you might not have known about, along with insight into what they’re looking for. In addition, one lucky winner will get to have a 20-minute Zoom call with Robert Agis, President of Starry Forest Books, where you can talk to him about anything in publishing! This is an amazing opportunity to get some insider info on all the things you’ve been wondering about in the publishing world. And don’t forget to practice your pitches, because he’ll definitely ask to hear about what you write and what you’re working on! This giveaway starts today and runs through Wednesday, June 15th! (Details and entry info at the bottom of this post!)

(Also, the Perfect Picture Book List for this week will be down at the bottom as usual, too. I may not be sharing an actual book today, but everyone else is!)

I want to thank Amy Dixon, Editor at Starry Forest books, for taking the time to join us today and give us this wonderful glimpse into an up-and-coming publisher! Thank you, Amy! In addition, she was able to get some responses from the other two acquiring editors, so you get to hear from all three!

First, some general info about Starry Forest Books!

Tell us a little bit about Starry Forest Books and how it came to be.

In 2016, Robert Agis, then an editor at Union Square & Co., collaborated with Barnes & Noble buyers to develop new series and title ideas. Starry Forest Books was a boutique publisher commissioned with actualizing these ideas for Sterling and Barnes & Noble. With creative direction from Robert Agis, Starry Forest developed several series including Baby’s Big World and Classic Stories which immediately proved successful. 

Inspired by Starry Forest’s potential, and with the vision to create distinctive children’s books and media, Robert took over Starry Forest in 2019. He negotiated worldwide distribution through Ingram, started a foreign rights business that includes growing sales in China, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere, and expanded the Starry Forest creative team and support roles to a team of ten. From three modest series sold through one retailer in 2019, the company has expanded to worldwide sales with more than 120 titles published or in development. 

Looking at your website, we can see you’ve done a lot of board book series and classics in the past. What does the trajectory of Starry Forest look like moving forward?

Our vision statement is “Make Something Beautiful” and we plan to continue pursuing that vision with the 20-30 titles we’ll publish each year. This includes the development and growth of our existing brands, like our Baby’s Classics and Gamer Baby series, as well as stand-alone picture books. We will also be expanding into categories such as chapter books and eventually, middle grade fiction! We’re thrilled that our first two stand-alone picture books will be entering the world in August, and we’ll be sharing more about them below!

For the next few questions, we asked the Starry Forest Editorial Team to chime in and give some inside scoop! They are Allison Hunter Hill, Anna Lazowski, and Amy Dixon—ALL both published authors and acquiring editors at Starry Forest Books.

You are here on Perfect Picture Book Friday! We’d love to hear what you look for when evaluating a picture book manuscript.

Anna Lazowski:

A fresh concept, or unique take on something familiar will always make a manuscript stand out. So many manuscripts start out strong but falter partway through. I love it when I get pulled in by the opening lines and the author is able to hold me there as the narrative unfolds. I also look for authors who know how to use emotion to connect with the reader, and understand that half of their story will, ultimately, be told by illustrations. 

Can you tell us about a Perfect Picture Book on your list? What drew you to this story?

Allison Hunter-Hill:

Being an editor is a little like being a parent– I can’t pick a favorite book-child! But I can tell you what I look for in picture books and what drew me to this one. Perfect Picture Books have a “spark” in them that sets them apart. It could be dialogue that makes you giggle and begs to be read out loud like “Not A Book About Bunnies” by Amanda Henke (coming in 2023!). Or a clever text that turns your world upside-down like “The End” by John Bray. Or maybe it’s an old tale that suddenly feels new again, like Valerie Tripp’s lushly re-imagined Greek myths, “Goddesses and Gardens.”

What drew me to Judy Roth’s “Cadence and Kittenfish” was the character of Cadence, herself– a bright, spunky little mermaid who does dance class with dolphins, Tai Chi with the lighthouse keeper, and wants a kitten SO BADLY that she can’t see what’s right under her adorable nose. Judy writes with such a unique, lyrical understanding. Her words are always fresh, surprising, and just begging to be read out loud! As a former librarian, I’m always on the lookout for a great storytime pick!

Illustrations play such a big role in creating a Perfect Picture Book, and there is so much talent to choose from! What did you love about this illustrator, and what made her right for this project?

Allison Hunter-Hill:

Jaclyn Sinquett is such a dream! I had three big requirements in mind when I started looking through illustrator portfolios: enchanting underwater scenes (no flat blues, please!), charming, lifelike girl characters, and the most absolutely irresistible kittens.

I knew Jaclyn was perfect for Cadence when I saw her art for “Sincerely, Emerson” by Emerson Webber. I could just tell that Jaclyn remembered what it was like to be an 8 or 9-year-old little girl– wistful, optimistic, and real. Top that off with her warm, painterly style and delicate detail work, and I was confident she would knock it out of the park. And she did!

The word that comes to mind when I think of Jaclyn is “generous.” Whatever you give her, she multiplies and gives back in abundance. I asked for a rough idea on a color scheme and she pitched a palette based on seaside blown glass and salt-water taffy. I sent her a boring copyright page and she draped it in delicate doodles of sea fronds. I mentioned it would be neat to see Cadence’s room, and what came back was something out of an enchanted mermaid dream: driftwood and coral bunkbeds with sea sponge pillows, a found-anchor nightstand, a delicate seashell tea set, and a literal Saltwater Guitar. 

Follow Jaclyn Sinquett @jsinquett on Instagram for close-ups, art process videos and more!

To me, a Perfect Picture Book illustrator is one who loves the story just as much as you do. Remember being a kid and finding a friend who would 1000% commit to pretending that the floor was molten lava? Or that your lego castle was under seige by giant Barbies? Or that you were both majestic horses with elaborate names like “Moonfire” or “Chestnut Lighting” or “Princess Starhorn”? (Someone please say yes. I’m begging you.) Finding a perfect illustrator is like finding that friend. They aren’t just willing to immerse themselves in a new world with you… they really want to play, too!

What kind of experience can an author or illustrator expect to have with Starry Forest Books?

Amy Dixon:

As a creator myself, I can say that I’ve been quite impressed by the sincere desire that the Starry Forest Team has to connect authentically with creators. Often, when there is interest in a manuscript, we have a Zoom call with creators, agents, editors, and our president, to meet and chat about the story. These have been some of the most enjoyable conversations, because they are about so much more than just a sale. We get to learn about the creators; where they are from, and what inspired them to write this story. We get to hear about what other projects they are working on. We become invested in the creator’s journey and get to explore the potential for us to be part of their growth, both with the existing project, and their overall craft.  And we get to see if there’s chemistry—we have a positive culture at Starry Forest and want that positivity to extend to the creators, and then pour out from our books to the consumer too. The hope is that everyone who crosses paths with Starry Forest Books is better for it. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a creator that chooses to work with Starry Forest will feel seen, heard, and valued. The passion that our company has to “Make Something Beautiful” is not just about producing a gorgeous book, but also about creating a beautiful experience for the writers and artists we work with.  

Do you have a wish list you can share with us? What types of stories are you looking to publish next? 

Amy Dixon: 

Right now, I am EAGERLY reading submissions! Hint, hint, it’s a great time to submit to me! My team will tell you that I am really loving creative non-fiction right now—teach me something without making me feel like you’re teaching me something! I adore stories about real events that inspire me to be a better human, especially ones featuring kick-ass women. I also would love to see more manuscripts that make me laugh, and where the illustrations tell a whole part of the story that isn’t in the text.  You can see more about the things I love and our submission guidelines on my manuscript wish list.

Anna Lazowski:

I absolutely love reading submissions, because when you find a gem in your inbox, it’s a truly incredible feeling. I’m always looking for a diversity of voices and experiences, and stories that help us understand each other. I love things that are a bit quirky, am a big fan of a well-placed surprise, and have a soft spot for creative use of language. You can find out more about what I’m looking for and check out our submission guidelines on my manuscript wish list

Where can we find you online? 

Website: www.starryforestbooks.com

Twitter: @starryforestbks

Instagram: @starryforestbks

Giveaway! 

We are giving away a 20-minute Zoom call with Robert Agis, President of Starry Forest Books, where you can talk to him about anything in publishing! This is an amazing opportunity to get some insider info on all the things you’ve been wondering about in the publishing world. And don’t forget to practice your pitches, because he’ll definitely ask to hear about what you write and what you’re working on! This giveaway starts today and runs through Wednesday, June 15th!

Enter the Starry Forest Books Giveaway Here!
Use the link to follow @starryforestbks on Twitter and Instagram, retweet the “Giveaway Time” tweet, and tag a fellow Picture Book Enthusiast by commenting on the “Giveaway Time” Instagram post. (You can find links to these posts at linktr.ee/starryforestbks)

Thank you again, Amy, for all this wonderful information and for taking the time to visit with us today! We all so appreciate it!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. . . 😊

For the complete list of books with resources, please visit Perfect Picture Books.

PPBF folks, please add your titles and post-specific blog links (and any other info you feel like filling out 😊) to the form below so we can all come see what fabulous picture books you’ve chosen to share this week!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! 😊

The Tuesday Debut Debut – Presenting Christy Mihaly!

Hey, Hey, Hay!  Welcome to Tuesday Debuts!

In this new series, we’re going to get all the juicy details from first-time picture book authors about how they went from pre-published to published.  I hope it will be interesting, informative, and inspirational for all of us – published and yet-to-be-published alike.  It’s always fun to hear the story behind the story, and there is always so much we can learn from each other!  I hope you’ll get a sense of the hands-on publishing process and that the information shared here might help you in your own journey by giving you tips or even giving you inspiration from another author’s process to spark new work of your own!

So!  Without further ado…

Introducing Christy’s first picture book:

Hey, Hey, Hay! (A Tale of Bales and the Machines That Make Them)
By Christy Mihaly, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
Holiday House, August 14, 2018
Informational picture book
4-8 years

HEY, HEY, HAY! Cover
In this joyful rhyming story, a farm girl brings the reader along as she and her mother make hay. She introduces each of the machines they use to cut, dry, and bale the grass, as they “store summer in a bale.”

And now, introducing Christy!

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Chirsty Mihaly, debut picture book author, canoeing (which may or may not have anything to do with either haying or writing but is still beautiful and fun 🙂 )

 

SLH: Welcome, Christy!  Thank you so much for joining us today, and for being the guinea pig for this new series – so brave of you!  There will be extra chocolate in your Christmas stocking 🙂  Let’s start from the beginning.  Where did the idea for this book come from?

CM: The idea for this book showed up right under my nose, in the summer of 2014. I was working on a couple of picture book biographies (which are still unpublished) when my family moved to a new home surrounded by hayfields. The process of turning grass into hay was beautiful and fascinating. The scent of new-mown grass filled the air and the rhythm of the machines (mower, tedder, baler, hay!) got into my head. Then these lines started running around in my mind: “Listen and I’ll tell the tale of storing summer in a bale.”

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Haying in action! The inspiration for this book!

SLH: How long did it take you to write this book?

CM: I wrote the first draft—which was basically a poem—over several weeks of on-and-off writing. It was short, sweet, and rhyming. But it wasn’t very good. Revising and polishing (with some sitting and stewing) took about seven months more.

SLH: Did you go through many revisions?

CM: Yes. I began with a poem called “Haying Time.” At first it didn’t occur to me that this could constitute a book. Then, when I realized that haymaking had picture book potential, I put on my nonfiction-writer hat. I could not find another book for kids about how hay is made. I researched all about hay and hayfields and haying technology and the history of hay. I wrote a manuscript with layered text and all kinds of sidebars (Monet painted famous pictures of haystacks! In the old days, people used scythes!) and footnotes. Eventually my critique partners convinced me to simplify (thank goodness) back down to a straightforward rhyming story.

I made many changes in the words of the text. How’s this for a sample stanza of the original poem: “The baler forms it into bales/While I keep watch, in case it fails.”

Um?

There’s one revision I’m particularly happy that I made: in the original version, the child narrator helped Dad with the haying; I changed it to helping Mom. Because many farmers are women.

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interior spread showing Farmer Mom 🙂

 

SLH: When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?

CM: I had been submitting other manuscripts, so I should have known, but I was so excited to send this one out that I made the mistake of submitting it too soon. And it was rejected.

After that, I took a break from it. Then I signed up for an online writing course and brought the HAY manuscript to the class for a critique. My classmates and instructor confirmed that it had potential, and they suggested ways to make it snappier. After about 5 months of revisions, I knew it was really ready to submit.

SLH: When and how did you submit?

CM: I give credit to my writing buddies for what finally happened with HAY. At the urging of several critique partners, I applied to the Falling Leaves writing conference, which was new to me. For the editor’s one-on-one critique, I submitted a different nonfiction manuscript, which I’d been working on forever. I was accepted to the conference, and my assigned editor loved that manuscript (though it’s unpublished still). She didn’t like HAY at all—she doesn’t do rhyming books.

But! Another editor at Falling Leaves that year was Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House. I was impressed with her; she seemed calm and wise and funny. Based on what she said she was seeking (and that she liked rhyme), I thought HAY might be a good fit for her. However, (see #4 above), I needed to revise first.

I reviewed other Holiday House books and saw that many were related to farming and food. That seemed like a good sign. So about four months after meeting Grace, I emailed my revised manuscript, now called “Mower, Tedder, Baler—Hay!” to her. I mentioned that we’d met at Falling Leaves, I cited other farm-related books from Holiday House, and I crossed my fingers.

SLH: When did you get “the call”?  (Best moment ever! 🙂 )

CM: So … I have learned that this part is unusual (though remember HAY had been through prior rejections and revisions). I emailed the manuscript to Grace on a Friday. The following Monday, she emailed back. She said she thought HAY was “adorable” and that she’d share it with her colleagues at their next editorial meeting! [We interrupt this program to say how awesome is THAT?!  We all dream of a response like that, and speaking for myself, I’ve never gotten a positive reply in 3 days!  WOW! 🙂 ]

Of course, I didn’t know when that was going to be, and I was too nervous to ask, so I just waited. And waited. And waited. Two weeks later, Grace emailed again with an offer to publish the book.

dog bale

Christy’s dog, wildly excited about the book sale, pointing out a round bale in the field

SLH: How did you celebrate signing your contract?  (If you care to share 🙂 )

CM: I believe it was a quiet celebration at home. I may have been in shock.

SLH: Was the contract what you expected in terms of advance, royalty percentage, publication timeline, author copies etc.?

CM: I had no idea what to expect. I remember mostly the excitement of an offer. One thing that sticks in my mind is that it took much longer than I’d anticipated to receive the contract. The document didn’t arrive until several months after the offer (and negotiation), which I hadn’t realized was normal.

I didn’t have an agent, so I found a knowledgeable lawyer (referred by another writer I met at Falling Leaves) to help review the offer and contract—I think the cost was about $250 and it was well worth it. It was reassuring to have an experienced person evaluate the offer. She said the basics (advance, royalties, etc.) were good, and we just negotiated to improve little things like getting more author copies of the book.

Aside from SLH: for the curious, I usually get 10-20 author copies of my books, and 5% is a pretty standard royalty percentage for authors (may be different for illustrators or author/illustrators) on hard covers from traditional trade publishers although there is variation on both those things.

SLH: Tell us about the editorial process?

CM: I generally enjoy working with editors. With HAY, it was great. It was clear that Grace cared about the book as much as I did.

One editorial discussion we had was about switchel, the traditional haymakers’ drink. In the initial offer, Grace indicated that her colleagues had an issue with my use of the term switchel. They thought it was too obscure – kids wouldn’t know it. (Of course they wouldn’t! That was the point.) I argued that kids would enjoy learning this fun new word.

Eventually, in the final edits, switchel stayed. It helped that there’s a company in Brooklyn, NY, that makes and bottles switchel. We included “switchel” as a term in the book’s glossary of haymaking terms, and also added a recipe so families could make their own switchel. Win-win!

SLH: Tell us about your experience of the illustration process?

CM: About six months after we signed the contract, I went to the SCBWI conference in New York, and Grace invited me to meet her in her office on Madison Avenue. (Squeee!) She took me to lunch, where she told me she’d signed Joe Cepeda to illustrate HAY. I was excited because I knew his work – he is very well established, a great artist, and in fact had illustrated a friend’s picture book years before.

After that, there was more than a year of waiting for Joe to complete the art. When she received his illustrations, Grace worked on the layout of the book. She sent me a pdf of the first pass: scans of Joe’s paintings, with the text laid out page by page, and post-its and mark-ups with questions and notes. Woo! It was a thrill to see that. I loved the vision that Joe brought to the book. He took this little Vermont story and made it universal, painting a beautiful farm that could be in the Midwest or the west as easily as in the east. I’m especially thrilled that he portrayed my first-person narrator as a girl.

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Grace’s office with HAY underway

With the layout, Grace sent a mark-up of my text, with suggested revisions. After that, we had several phone conversations to go over questions. We adjusted a few lines to make the words consistent with the illustrations. Because it’s a rhyming book, those small revisions can be tricky. I provided Grace with alternatives for substitute couplets that might work, and she selected her favorite.

Then, Grace and the designers adjusted the page breaks, the end papers, the design and location of the glossary and the recipe, the dedication – all those little things that are so important in the book’s look and feel. Grace sent me updated pdf’s showing these steps. We made sure the illustrations accurately portrayed the haying process. Finally it was out of my hands and I could (try to) relax in the knowledge that our book was going to be gorgeous.

SLH: Did you get to see advance reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, etc? What was that like?

CM: Yes! Grace (and the publicity folks at Holiday House, who are also lovely) forwarded me advance copies of the Kirkus and SLJ reviews. I was really nervous about reviews, and very relieved when the reviewers “got” my book and wrote about it positively. Whew.

SLH: How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand?

CM: Two years and 10 months.

Aside from SLH: I’ve had picture books come together in as short as just over a year to as long as one that’s been in process for 6 years and isn’t out yet, but I think 2 – 2.5 years is pretty average… in so far as anything in this business is average 🙂

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SLH: If your book has been out for at least one statement cycle, has it earned out yet?

CM: Oh, now you are making me nervous.

SLH: That was a trick question for you because your book just came out today!  I just wanted to see if you were paying attention 🙂  Get back to us in 6-12 months 🙂

SLH: Describe any marketing/promotion you did for this book.

CM: As a committed introvert, I find all of this outside my comfort zone. But because this is my first trade book I resolved to learn what I needed to learn, and do what I needed to do, to promote it. I joined the “Epic Eighteen” gang, a group of debut picture book writers and illustrators whose first books are scheduled for 2018 release (many thanks to Hannah Holt and friends). This has been an incredibly helpful source of information-sharing and support through a shared Facebook page, a mutual blog, and some in-person meetings.

Leading up to the book’s release, I sent many emails to the very helpful publicity folks at Holiday House. They answered my clueless questions and explained how this stressful process works. They sent out hundreds of advance copies to reviewers, and submitted my book to book festivals, etc. They also explained that the writer is generally responsible for the rest of the promotional tasks.

I set up a pre-order campaign with my local indie bookstore, Bear Pond Books. Folks who place advance orders online from Bear Pond receive a discount and special gift, and once the book is out I sign the books, with a personalization if requested, and Bear Pond ships them out.

I also ordered postcards, bookmarks, and bookplates (to personalize books for people that buy their own elsewhere) using art from the book. (The author pays for these.) Preparing for readings at bookstores and libraries, I developed book-specific crafts and hay-related activities to engage the kids. To practice reading my book to kids, I read an advance copy to a local first grade class (and got some helpful feedback). And I read it to my 2-year-old grandson, who is too young for the book but who loved the tractor pictures and thereafter greeted me by saying “Nana! Book! Hey, Hey, Hay!!!”

DSCF1185

Future hay-er, Christy’s grandson 🙂

I arranged with some fabulous kidlit bloggers to do interviews and posts for a blog around the release. And I scheduled a bunch of HAY events: a reading and hay activities at a farm, library story times, bookstore readings, an appearance at university book festival, another at an arts festival in a small town . . . and we’ll see how all that goes!

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reading to first-graders

Things I didn’t do (because you can’t do everything): a book trailer, stickers, and tattoos. Oh, and a huge launch party. I decided a small celebration is more my speed.

SLH: How long was it between the time you started writing seriously and the time you sold your first picture book?

CM: Short answer: almost four years.

More info: I started putting serious energy into writing for kids in the fall of 2011. I focused on magazine submissions, and was thrilled to see my first story published in an (unpaid) online magazine in 2012. As I learned more about the magazine market, I sent out queries and more submissions and started selling articles.

And it turned out that HAY was not my first published book, although it is my first trade book. In 2015 I began writing books for the educational market on a work-for-hire basis, and I’ve now published 7 in that market.

SLH: Anything else you’d like to share about your book’s journey from inspiration to publication?

CM: I think of myself as a nonfiction writer, so it’s ironic that HAY, a book featuring a fictional narrator, is my first published picture book. It’s informational of course (back matter!), but fiction. I’m glad that when this unexpected idea came wafting over the hayfields to find me, even though was so unlike the historical stories I thought I was meant to tell, I ran with it.

SLH:  Christy, thank you so much for kicking off our new series so fabulously!  I know I speak for all of us when I wish you the very best with your book!  For those who would like to support Christy, please shop for her book at your favorite bookseller, make sure your local library has a copy (you can request they get one if they don’t already have it), read her book and post reviews on GoodReads and any online bookstore you frequent, or share a nice review on your blog or FB page, donate a copy to your child’s school library, consider as a gift to a young reader in your life, stand on a street corner and wave flyers, or anything else you can think of! 🙂

If you’d like to know more about Christy or be in touch with her online, you can find her here:

Website: www.christymihaly.com.Chris closeup

Twitter: @CMwriter4kids

Instagram: @Christy Mihaly

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/christymihaly/

Blogging at GROG: https://groggorg.blogspot.com/

Thanks again to Christy for participating, and to all of you for reading!  If you have any questions for Christy, please use the comment section below!

P.S. We started Tuesday Debuts today even though many of us (myself included) are technically on Summer Blogcation because today is the day of Christy’s book release.  The series will continue with regularity in September.  We’re just whetting your appetite 🙂